2016 Colorado Ag Water Summit recap


From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Todd Hagenbuch) via Steamboat Today:

On Tuesday, people from across the state convened for the 2016 Colorado Ag Water Summit at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds near Denver. Northwest Colorado was well-represented by folks who live and work in both the Yampa and White River basins.

The subject of this year’s summit was ATMs. No, not the machines that dole out cash, but Alternative Transfer Methods. ATMs are creative ways to work within the confines of Colorado water law to enable water rights to be used temporarily for uses other than what they are decreed for.

You might remember that there are specific uses attached to an individual’s water right in Colorado – an irrigation right can only be used to grow crops, and a municipal right can only be used to provide water for a specific, set-area of residences, business, etc. If a water right is purchased for a use other than the decreed use, the owner must go to Water Court to get the decreed use changed.

When approved, these change cases typically take agricultural uses and turn them into municipal uses, enabling thirsty cities to provide water for an ever-increasing number of customers. This ‘Buy and Dry’ approach takes irrigated farm land out of production. Because these rural areas are losing agricultural productivity, they also lose farmers, farm implement dealers, local bankers, the local grocery store, etc. Eventually, entire communities disappear.

Landscapes also change from an environmental and scenic perspective when they are no longer irrigated. John McKenzie, who represented the Ditch and Reservoir [Company] Alliance at the summit, summarized it well when he said, “We’ve created a constructed landscape and environment we all really like.” That change was because we started irrigating otherwise arid lands.

ATMs aim to let one user (usually a municipality) use another’s right (usually a farmer’s) temporarily. Legislation passed recently allows for these arrangements three out of every ten years.

Since the legislation was passed, several new ATMs have been created. The Ag Water Summit featured panels of speakers who shared their experiences of participating in ATM projects. Ag producers, municipality and industrial, and environmental and recreational interests were represented.

Most of the panelists were pleased with their ATM experiences, although panelists also talked about the challenges that need addressed if this type of water sharing is to succeed in the intermountain west. Some of those challenges include: cost, risk and uncertainty, lack of infrastructure to store and convey water from one user to another and the need for all parties to have a long-term agreement in order to make plans for the future (investments, contracts, etc.).

Regarding those challenges, Andy Jones, a lawyer specializing in water law out of northern Colorado, said “Think of ATMs as a big water supply project: they will need the same infrastructure, investment, etc. as any ‘new source’ project.”

Colorado will continue to be challenged by more demand for water than we have supply to accommodate, but thinking of new ways to share it will help us to meet more of those needs. And continuing to bring people together to discuss it will help, too.

Todd Hagenbuch is the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University Routt County Extension.

UAWCD files objection in Coaldale water case — The Mountain Mail

Graphic via the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District
Graphic via the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District

From The Mountain Mail (Joe Stone):

The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District board of directors voted at its recent meeting to file an objection to the Security Water District’s court application for a change of water rights on Hayden Creek in Coaldale (Division 2, case 2016CW3055).

In discussing whether or not to get involved in the case, Upper Ark directors mentioned unresolved issues with Hill Ranch near Nathrop after the Pueblo West Metropolitan District purchased the ranch, changed the water right and dried up the land.

The directors’ discussion highlighted three main concerns:

  • Ensuring that the amount of water claimed by Security is not excessive.
  • Ensuring that Security administers the amount and timing of return flows so that other water rights are not injured by the change of use.
  • Ensuring that the dried-up ranch land is properly revegetated.
  • Security acquired the 1894 agricultural water rights when it purchased a Coaldale ranch that, according to the filing, historically used the water to irrigate 195 acres.

    The filing cites Security’s own study of consumptive water use on the ranch from 1912 through 2006 in asserting that historical water use “resulted in net stream depletions (consumptive use credits) of approximately 236 annual acre-feet.”

    Security seeks to change the Hayden Creek water rights from an agricultural use in Coaldale to a municipal use in Security, allowing the water to flow into Pueblo Reservoir before diverting the proposed 236 acre-feet per year through the Fountain Valley Conduit.

    The Security filing indicates that the water right may be used for continued irrigation on the ranch “to the extent not limited by municipal use of the depletion credits and dry-up requirements.”

    In the filing Security commits to constructing a Coaldale augmentation station to measure and administer the Hayden Creek water rights. The filing also indicates Security “may construct a groundwater recharge facility” that “may be used for recharge to the aquifer and later delivery of accretion credits back to the Arkansas River” (i.e., return flows).

    This would help prevent injury to other water rights holders because the return flows would be delivered to the river in the same location as the historical return flows created by irrigating the ranch.

    But the filing also indicates that Security may “replace return flow obligations to the Arkansas River” by means of “releases from Pueblo Reservoir,” which could injure other water rights between Coaldale and Pueblo Reservoir.

    Since Security owns the Hayden Creek water rights, the Upper Ark district’s filing won’t prevent the change of use, but as an objector, the conservancy district will receive future filings in the case and will have the opportunity to negotiate stipulations to address concerns.

    #ColoradoRiver: Sharing Water: A Special Presentation from Author John Fleck Wednesday, November 30 #COriver

    Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic
    Young girl enjoying the river restored temporarily by the pulse flow March 2014 via National Geographic

    Register here. From the website:

    When the governments of the United States and Mexico released water from Morelos Dam on the Colorado River in the spring of 2014, it marked the culmination of one of the most important environmental restoration experiments in arid western North America. In the midst of deep drought, water returned to the river’s desiccated delta, and with it birds, riparian plant communities, and even beavers. But while all nature is ultimately local, bringing water and wildlife back to that landscape required linking those local environmental concerns to water management in the entire Colorado River Basin, spread across seven U.S. states and two in Mexico. John Fleck will talk about his new book “Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West,” which chronicles the environmental success in the delta and the broader problem solving that made it possible.


    CCWCD closes on two projects

    Geisert Reservoir photo via the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.
    Geisert Reservoir photo via the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.

    Here’s the release from the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District (Randy Ray or Kathy Parker):

    ““CCWCD is pleased to announce the acquisition Geisert Reservoir. Every opportunity CCWCD can, we partner with good people such as Weld County – it’s proven to be a win-win for the two agencies. The support of the Weld County Commissioners regarding irrigated agriculture is so impressive, the residents of Weld County have to be proud.” –Randy W. Ray – CCWCD Executive Director

    “CCWCD staff and Board of Directors constantly evaluate projects which provide the best benefit for our constituents as economical as possible. The CCWCD Board was successful in siting a diversion point on the South Platte River for the Bijou Hill Recharge Project – will provide a supply of water to the South Platte River when operational that will last for years.” — Randy W. Ray – CCWCD Executive Director

    Central Colorado Water Conservancy District and Weld County Commissioners formally executed a closing on Geisert Reservoir November 8th. This water storage project takes advantage of a mined-out gravel pit on the north bank of the Cache La Poudre River, near 11th avenue, in north Greeley. Geisert Reservoir has a perimeter slurry wall that limits interaction of groundwater, the slurry wall liner was tested and approved by the Colorado Division of Water Resources. The reservoir capacity is 1,257 acre-feet and should be full by the end of November. The water being used to fill Geisert Reservoir during the months of November and December originates from a lease with the City of Thornton and other water supplies owned by CCWCD upstream of Greeley. The water will be held in storage for a short time period and released in approximately January of 2017 for augmentation of Central’s 1,000-member agricultural irrigation wells. The CCWCD agricultural members are located in parts of Adams, Morgan and Weld Counties.

    A second closing was held on November 10th for CCWCD’s Bijou Hill Recharge Project in western Morgan County near the town of Orchard, Colorado. This land near the South Platte River will become a new point of water diversion in which water will be pumped south of the river several miles to recharge projects. These recharge projects include ponds which will be constructed as shallow infiltration basins with the intent of rapid seepage into the underlying groundwater aquifer. The water after delivered to the groundwater aquifer becomes as water supply to be used for augmentation of agricultural wells in CCWCD’s plans of augmentation which include roughly 1,000 wells in parts of Adams, Morgan and Weld Counties. The groundwater recharge project will be a tremendous benefit to the CCWCD augmentation plans operated by the CCWCD Sub-Districts – the Groundwater Management Subdistrict and the Well Augmentation Subdistrict.

    Augmentation plans are Water Court decreed legal agreements which allow irrigation wells to pump out of priority while preventing injury to more senior water rights using projects such as Geisert Reservoir and Bijou Hill Recharge.

    Bijou Hill Recharge and Geisert Reservoir will not only help farmers and livestock producers with their needed water supplies, but also offer an added benefit of creating new wildlife habitat and water quality improvements.

    CCWCD – Where the Future Flows

    If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Randy Ray or Kathy Parker at 970-330-4540 or email at rray@ccwcd.org

    South Platte River alluvial aquifer
    South Platte River alluvial aquifer

    #ColoradoRiver: Moffat Collection System Project update #COriver

    Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS
    Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

    From The Wall Street Journal (Jim Carlton):

    Next year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide whether to issue a permit to triple the capacity of Gross Reservoir in the Rocky Mountain foothills, with additional shipments of about 18,000 acre feet of water a year from the Colorado River watershed. An acre foot is enough water to meet the annual needs of an average family of five.

    That is one of the last regulatory barriers for utility Denver Water’s $380 million project, for which district officials say they hope to break ground in 2019 to help ensure local water supplies.

    “We have an obligation to supply water,” said Jeff Martin, Denver Water’s manager of the project, as he stood recently atop a 340-foot concrete dam that is to be raised by 131 feet under the plan. “It’s not an option to not have water.”


    The Corps of Engineers is expected to decide next year on a proposed new “Windy Gap” project in Colorado, which would divert up to another 30,000 acre feet a year to the Front Range, the heavily populated area where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the plains.

    In addition, more than 200,000 acre feet would be diverted for proposed projects in Utah and Wyoming…

    Water officials in California and other lower basin states say they aren’t overly concerned about more diversions upstream, because a 1922 compact requires the upper basin states to deliver them about 7.5 million acre feet a year, or one half the river flow set aside for human use north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Much of that water is stockpiled in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border.

    With the Colorado running much lower than when the compact was signed, water experts say there is less water to divert.

    “So long as their development doesn’t impinge on their release to us, that is their business,” said Chuck Cullom, a program manager at the Central Arizona Project in Phoenix, which pulls from the river and stands to lose a fifth of its deliveries if a shortage is declared on the Colorado. “If it falls below that, then they would have to figure out how to manage their demand.”

    Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversees use of the river in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, agreed that new diversions increase the risk of shortages.

    “The more you develop, the more a severe drought can affect you,” said Mr. Ostler. “But we are able to live with a certain amount of shortage.”

    In Denver, water officials don’t feel they have much choice but to seek more Colorado water.

    In 2002, tons of sediment from a forest fire clogged one of Denver Water’s reservoirs during a drought. “We came close to running out of water in the northern end of our system,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, a utility that serves 1.4 million people.

    That crisis helped prompt the district in 2003 to undertake the Gross Reservoir expansion, which would store more water from an existing tunnel that transfers Colorado River water from the west side of the Continental Divide.

    Denver officials pledged to only take the water in wet years and release more into streams when it is dry—measures that drew praise from some conservationists…

    Gov. John Hickenlooper in July gave the state’s approval, calling the dam’s expansion vital. “The state’s responsibility is to ensure we do the right thing for Colorado’s future,” the Democratic governor said at the time, “and this project is vital infrastructure for our economy and the environment.”

    The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
    The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Healthy Rivers board works to keep water in the river — Aspen Public Radio

    Roaring Fork River, Grottos, on Monday morning June 13, 2016, looking downstream, with diversions into the Twin Lakes Tunnel at over 600 cfs. While impressive at this level, the whitewater frenzy that resulted after the tunnels were closed was far more intense. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith <a href="http://aspenjournalism.org">Aspen Journalism</a>.
    Roaring Fork River, Grottos, on Monday morning June 13, 2016, looking downstream, with diversions into the Twin Lakes Tunnel at over 600 cfs. While impressive at this level, the whitewater frenzy that resulted after the tunnels were closed was far more intense. Photo Brent Gardner-Smith Aspen Journalism.

    From Aspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

    Healthy Rivers and Streams board members recently took a field trip to the construction zone on the Roaring Fork River, where backhoes are digging up the riverbed. By February, this should be a man-made whitewater park with two waves for boaters to surf.

    Board chair Lisa Tasker said the ultimate goal of this project is to keep water in the river during low flow years, using a water right designated for recreation.

    “When you get a recreational in-channel diversion water right, you have to put structures in, and then you have to prove that people are recreating in there,” Tasker said.

    With a price-tag of nearly $800,000, the whitewater park is the biggest project the Healthy Rivers and Streams fund has tackled…

    Now it is turning its attention to the City of Aspen, which wants to reserve the right to build reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks. The municipality filed last month with the state to keep its conditional water storage right.

    “We’re a healthy rivers board, and we’re going to respond in favor of a healthy river and a healthy ecosystem,” Tasker said. “So, we’re going to come out probably fairly strongly, because that is our mission.”

    At a meeting in late October, the river board agreed to urge Pitkin County Commissioners to formally file in opposition to the City of Aspen in water court. Commissioner Rachel Richards is not warm to the idea.

    “Just forcing the city to relinquish those water rights actually does nothing to protect the long-term health of the Castle Creek or the Maroon Creek,” Richards said.

    Richards said she’d like to see the city maintain the rights while researching alternatives, like digging into a deeper aquifer or working to change Colorado water law entirely.

    If nothing else, Richards and Tasker agree, the issue has opened a new conversation and interest in local water issues.

    “I think it’s going to cause people to become a lot more creative and a lot more imaginative as to how they’re going to handle a shortage of water in the future,” Tasker said.

    The county has until Dec. 31 to file in opposition to the city.

    Read Brent Gardner-Smith’s analysis of Aspen’s diligence filing.

    Aspen’s diligence filings on Maroon and Castle creeks stir opposition

    Site map for the proposed reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks via Robert Garcia and The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
    Site map for the proposed reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks via Robert Garcia and The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

    Read Brent Gardner-Smith’s (@AspenJournalism) excellent analysis here.

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    City officials [assure residents and others that], while there’s no proposal to actually build the reservoirs at this time, it would be irresponsible not to continue seeking to preserve the water rights for what may be one of many approaches for meeting future needs.

    “Despite the notion that the city is poised to dam Maroon Valley, in reality this filing is an action demanded by state law to protect our rights to your drinking water,” Mayor Steve Skadron wrote in a recent letter to the editor to the Aspen Daily News.

    “Without knowing more about viable alternatives for water storage, it would not be prudent water management on our part to give up these water rights. After all, climate and other changes in this region are uncertain and what our needs will look like in 2066 is not something we are poised to gamble away by letting this storage right go.”

    Acting on unanimous direction from City Council, the city last week applied to keep for another six years conditional water rights it has held since 1965. Its action has riled up not just local residents but conservation groups including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates.

    “I think if we need to find other places to get water, there’s probably other places to do that than the base of the Maroon Bells,” said Will Roush, Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director.

    A view from where a dam would stand to form the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo via Brent Gardner-Smith @AspenJournalism.
    A view from where a dam would stand to form the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo via Brent Gardner-Smith @AspenJournalism.

    The shapely Maroon Bells are two of the most famous of Colorado’s 50-plus Fourteeners, or peaks over 14,000 feet high. Endless photos depict the twin, red-rock, snow-fringed peaks presiding in the back of a green-forested valley, their images reflected by Maroon Lake in the foreground. So many people visit the lake for that view that vehicle access in summer is mostly restricted to buses.

    Castle Creek is similarly stunning, providing access to another Fourteener, Castle Peak, as well as the ghost town of Ashcroft, the popular Conundrum Hot Springs and other attractions.

    Beyond issues such as aesthetics, the Maroon Bells reservoir would lie largely within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, and a small part of the Castle Creek one would be in wilderness. That has attracted the interest of the U.S. Forest Service, which expects to file an opposition letter to Aspen’s filing in water court pointing out that it doesn’t have the authority to allow a reservoir in wilderness.

    “Actually, the president of the United States does,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest.

    He said he believes the president would have to approve such an action, or sign an act of Congress redrawing the wilderness area lines to exclude such a reservoir.

    Fitzwilliams said he’s aware of situations where wilderness areas have been created with a specific exemption allowing for a reservoir. But this situation would be different. Roush said while it’s possible to petition a president for an exception for a new reservoir in an existing wilderness area, this provision of the Wilderness Act has never been used, and he fears that Aspen could set a damaging precedent.

    David Hornbacher, Aspen’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, said that when the city’s water rights moved forward in 1965, the acreage envisioned for the two reservoirs didn’t overlie wilderness. That changed in 1980 when the wilderness area was expanded. Regardless, the Wilderness Act provides a presidential path forward for building reservoirs in wilderness, he said.

    That issue wouldn’t be the only one on the Forest Service’s mind if the city proceeded with trying to build the reservoirs.

    “Certainly, flooding the Maroon Valley, we would have a host of issues that we would bring to their attention. It’s a pretty popular spot,” Fitzgerald said, chuckling at his understatement.

    But while the Forest Service could hold the city responsible for mitigating effects such as flooding wetlands, it would have to let the city exercise its legal rights to store water, within reason, he said.

    “There’s a limited amount of authority we can exercise when it comes to a water right,” he said.

    The Maroon and Castle creek reservoir dams are envisioned as being 150 and 175 feet high, respectively, enough to swamp more than 200 acres between them.

    Roush finds the city’s position on the water rights incongruous with its good record of environmental stewardship on climate change and other issues.

    “Maintaining the right to put dams on these two creeks just seems a little bit out of sync with both the City Council itself but also the character of the community,” he said.

    But Hornbacher said climate change is a big factor forcing the city’s hand.

    “Aspen’s water supply is snow and that is changing,” he said.

    The city largely relies on the snowpack-induced river flows from the two valleys now. But with a warmer climate, reflected by an average of 23 more frost-free days in Aspen today than in 1980, that snowpack’s future reliability is in question.

    “Essentially what water you do have tends to be melting or leaving the valley earlier (each year) than it has in the past,” he said.

    Reservoir storage would not only bolster water supplies each year, but prove valuable in cases of back-to-back drought years.

    While the city has had success in implementing water conservation measures, it also is looking to more demand as a result of a growing population, its transition from a winter resort to a more year-round one, and the possibility that second-home owners could use those homes more or convert them to their primary homes, Hornbacher said.

    He said it’s important for the city to make decisions today to address the uncertainties and risks of providing a safe, secure and legal water supply in the future.

    Conservationists contend the city’s own water supply study this year shows the reservoirs wouldn’t be necessary. Harrison doesn’t think the city’s population ever will grow enough to warrant their construction. She’s unnerved by the due-diligence language in the city’s water rights filing that it “can and will” build the dams. That makes her think the city is leaning toward building them.

    “If that’s the case it’s like, are you kidding me?” Harrison said. “There are a lot of people that are outraged.”

    Hornbacher hopes that with interest in the issue being high right now, the public can be enlisted to get involved in working with the city on evaluating existing water-supply alternatives and identifying new ones. Council directed city staff to initiate such a collaborative process when it decided to have the city proceed with filing to keep the water rights.

    Among the options for consideration are rethinking the size and location of the envisioned reservoirs within the two valleys, as well as how water rights might be affected if the city looked to build them in another valley.

    Roush said the Wilderness Workshop would love to work with the city on studying storage, and whether it could be accomplished in other ways, such as in tanks, underground aquifers or through water-sharing with other entities.

    “There’s certainly a role for stored water but in places like (Maroon and Castle creeks), they’re certainly inappropriate,” he said of the reservoirs.